No Man’s Land

by John Stoltenberg

Harold Pinter may be the biggest tease ever to write for theater. Case in point: his No Man’s Land—which just ended a run in a superb production by WSC Avant Bard at Theater on the Run. Pinter piles on the dialogic misdirection, plot ambiguity, and character non sequiturs as if in a fugue state. And woe to anyone who tries to learn what’s really going on; for as with most of Pinter, one cannot  breathe the word  “reality” without air quotes. But there’s canny method here, and if one yields to Pinter’s calculated obfuscation, the effect is fascinating—and often hilarious.

A fifty-something literary lion (Hirst, played both powerfully and buffoonishly by Brian Hemmingsen) has picked up a fifty-something literary wannabe (Spooner, played connivingy and fey by Christopher Henley) at Hampstead Heath, a notorious gay cruising ground in northwest London. Hirst has brought Spooner home to his high-toned but kind of creepy and off-kilter lair (designed by Steven T. Royal Jr.). The talky assignation that follows, while never overtly sexual, has more homoerotic undertones than one can shake a dick at.

This ostensible “no man’s land” is in fact very much a man’s land, and Pinter is a master at tracking the subtle and not-so-subtle dominance games that men play with one another when there are no women around to put down. There’s an amazing scene in which Hirst goes on and on about having had an affair with Spooner’s wife. (We’re never really certain whether Spooner was ever actually married, but never mind, the point is the cockfight.) We see Spooner wither under Hirst’s taunting tale of cuckoldry, and the round goes to Hirst. Then Spooner rallies and launches into a graphic and detailed depiction of his own dalliances with women whom Hirst had fancied but never shagged. (Again, did any of this really happen? Doesn’t matter.) It’s Spooner’s triumph at oneupsmanship and Hirst’s turn at defeat.

The whole play is kind of a patchwork of beats and scenes like that—artful innuendo and elegant verbal fisticuffs by which Pinter puts the men in menace. The sparring gets deviously and delectably more complex with the entrance of two younger male characters, apparently Hirst’s hired help and perhaps sex buddies besides (Foster, played by Frank Britton, and Briggs, played by Bruce Alan Rauscher).

Pinter was an actor before he became famous as a playwright, and his trust in the actor’s craft runs through and through his work. The characters in No Man’s Land don’t really have clear arcs; indeed they’re not necessarily the same characters from scene to scene. The play functions not at all like a well-made play but rather like a long-form improvisation, with the premise or setup shifting from scene to scene and the actors immersing themselves in the fluidity of the proposition at hand—with the benefit of Pinter’s language to locate themselves somewhere in the moment.

I’ve admired several recent WSC productions: Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Bacchae, and Tooth of Crime. I have to say, though, this No Man’s Land easily tops that list. Watching the splendid performances of Hemmingsen and Henley (both past artistic directors) under the astute direction of Tom Prewett (the company’s new AD), I could not help but hope that Helen Hayes award nominators had caught the show. Henley’s poseur performance in particular tickled me—he kept cracking me up, sometimes with no more than a twitch of eyebrow or flick of tongue.

WSC Avant Bard’s daring engagements with classic theater literature are a DC-area treasure. Alas, for the time being WSC Avant Bard  is nomadic, because last year it was unceremoniously booted from its black-box space in Artisphere (a deeply dumb decision that prompted me not to want to return to Artisphere since). To shake things up, the company’s next production will be a new play—Caesar and Dada by Allyson Currin. It opens June 29 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre. I’ll be there.